Tuesday, April 26, 2011


April 22

You never know. Sometimes visiting performers come to town with sterling credentials and a stellar reputation and turn out to be every bit as good as their critical accolades. Other times, you find yourself looking in the program to make sure that the person onstage is indeed the one who was scheduled to perform that night.

Wielding a heavy metal baton.
Case in point: Friday night’s Czech Philharmonic concert, which featured two classical stars from Germany, conductor Jun Märkl and violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Märkl is the principal conductor and artistic director of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony, and has conducted orchestras around the world, including some of the finest in the United States, and at prestigious opera houses throughout Europe. Tetzlaff has recorded extensively and is known for his definitive interpretations of concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Ligeti and Shostakovich, as well as Bach’s Partitas.

Yet Friday’s concert could hardly have been more disappointing. Märkl seemed to have no feel for the material – Debussy’s “Rondes de Printemps” from Images, Szymanowski’s Violin concerto No. 1 and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The sound was entirely one-dimensional throughout all three pieces, with no definition or depth. The music had a nice surface gloss, but nothing beneath, like a polished but bloodless statue. And Tetzlaff sounded like he was choking his instrument rather than squeezing tender tones from it.

The problems were apparent early in the Debussy piece, a dazzling impressionist work. The music embodies all the freshness and vitality of spring, with a broad palette of colors, constantly changing rhythms and new geometries of composition. But it sounded heavy and tentative, almost ham-fisted at times, with the percussion section the only bright spot. To be generous, that could have been the orchestra, which is superb in the Central European repertoire but less adept with more dexterous composers.

Less impressive live.
The Szymanowski concerto got off to a rousing start, but Märkl quickly flattened the sound to put the focus on Tetzlaff. No problem with that, especially for a player of Tetzlaff’s technical skills. But his sound was off-putting, to say the least. In reviews of good recordings of the work, the violin sound is usually described as “sweet” or “delicate” – or in one case, “syrupy.” Tetzlaff’s sound Friday was, going directly to this critic’s notebook: “Whiny...a weird kind of moaning or keening...more like a high-pitched whistle than a tone...a wounded child...is this piece supposed to sound like this?”

More than anything, it was baffling. Teztlaff recorded the Szymanowski concerto with Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic, and got generally positive reviews. But even the orchestra members had a hard time applauding Friday’s performance. And no offense to German violin maker Peter Greiner, but Tetzlaff really should get himself a good concert violin.

Märkl saved the worst for last, starting Pictures at a rapid clip and picking up speed as he went along. The pace alone left no time or space to develop nuances and layers. As if to compensate, he kept cranking the volume higher, until it was almost ear-splitting. Nothing against big noises, but that was the loudest this critic has ever heard the orchestra, bringing to mind the legendary amps from Spinal Tap that go up to 11. For heavy metal, it’s a great technique. On this particular occasion, it was ill-chosen and not enough to cover shabby musicianship.

As another critic noted after the concert, anyone can have an off-night. And perhaps any two can have an off-night. In Tetzlaff’s case, we’ll have a chance to find out, as he will be back in May for a Prague Spring concert with the San Francisco Symphony. He could be baffling again, or brilliant.

You never know.

And more on Christian Tetzlaff: http://www.christiantetzlaff.com/index_en.html

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